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Samantha Bee’s TBS show ‘Full Frontal’ donates five-bedroom home to Decatur charity El Refugio Ministry 

The group provides free housing for families visiting detained undocumented immigrants at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin

Originally posted Monday, December 17, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

TBS’s “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” to honor a Decatur charity’s work with undocumented immigrant families, has purchased an entire house for the group, a moment that will be featured on this Wednesday’s “Christmas on I.C.E.” special.

Bee has been quite enamored with Georgia since she debuted her political satire show in 2016. 

Samantha Bee featured Rep. Scott Holcomb’s battle to get rape kits tested in 2016She interviewed former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in January, then mocked current Republican governor Brian Kemp in May

During a special “Full Frontal” airing Wednesday focused on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.), Bee’s show will reward Decatur-based charity El Refugio Ministry with a five-bedroom, 3,100-square-foot home in Lumpkin for free.

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The non-profit organization houses family members visiting undocumented immigrants detained at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, 140 miles south of Atlanta. Volunteers also visit detainees regularly. 

Stewart is one of the largest detention centers in the nation. It’s run by the Corrections Corp. of America and has an official capacity of 1,752 inmates. 

Since 2010, El Refugio has rented a modest, 1,000-square-foot yellow three-bedroom residence near the detention center. It’s used as a hospitality house providing free meals and lodging as well as friendship and comfort to loved ones of detained immigrants. Many families drive long distances to see the detainees and are already under financial distress.

RELATED: An AJC profile of El Refugio from 2017

Over the years, the group has accommodated hundreds of families and demand for its services has spiked under the Trump administration. Pro bono attorneys who drive or fly long distances to Stewart to help out detainees also stay at the home. 

“We are usually over-capacity on weekends,” said Amilcar  Valencia, the executive director. There are minimal lodging and dining options in or near Lumpkin. The biggest decent-sized city, Columbus, is a 40-minute drive.

Though the current house has nine beds and just a single bathroom, it recently squeezed in 18 people with folks on air mattresses and futons. The new home could fit 20-plus people comfortably. 

Bee’s TBS show last month had asked immigration attorneys who represent detainees how the show could make the greatest impact from a charitable standpoint. Many  pointed out El Refugio’s need for a new home. 

So the producers decided to purchase the nearly 200-year-old historical home for $82,000, according to realtor.com. It’s located on Main Street across from a Southern buffet Lily’s. For the filmed segment, Bee flew down from New York to Lumpkin, hung out with El Refugio staff and interviewed families of detainees. 

“It’s really exciting,” said Marie Marquardt, a former board chair who has been involved with El Refugio since its early days. “We and a fellow board member went down to watch some of the filming. We looked at each other and I said, ‘This is the best Christmas present ever! We couldn’t possibly imagine such a generous gift!’”

“Full Frontal” hired a contractor to re-do bathrooms and plumbing, brought in donated beds and installed state-of-the-art, high efficiency appliances and light fixtures. “We have a washer and dryer for the first time!” said Marquardt.

Overall, she said, “they just really went above and beyond. They helped us with all the inspections and any legal questions.” 

Senior field producer Tyler Hall joked to Marquardt: “In case this comedy thing doesn’t work out for us, we can become a home flipping show!” In an interview Monday, Hall added, “I have newfound respect for the folks at HGTV.”

He said while the special is set up to motivate viewers to donate money for worthy causes, “we wanted to put our money where our mouth is by setting aside a portion of our production budget.” He estimated, counting in-kind donations, the value of their gift is well in excess of $150,000.

“The house is right in middle of downtown Lumpkin,” Hall added, “and it had a lot of character.” 

Program coordinator (and former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter) Patti Ghezzi said the El Refugio board was already seeking a bigger home but hadn’t considered this particular residence until “Full Frontal” pointed it out.

El Refugio didn’t know what “Full Frontal” was up to until the producers had already picked out the home.

“The board determined that it would meet our needs remarkably well,” Ghezzi said. “It was just an aligning of the stars in one of those crazy ways where things work out just right.”

Bee, in a press release, wrote, jokingly: “When President Stacey Abrams closes this cruel detention center I would gladly move into the house myself, it’s beautiful. #christmaswishes.”

Valencia said they hope to move into the new home by late January. Down the road, he also hopes they can raise enough funds to hire someone to live full-time in Lumpkin. Right now, they are heavily reliant on volunteers for logistics, typically coming in from out of town. 

So far, they said the residents of Lumpkin - many who work at Stewart Detention Center - have been accommodating to their presence. “We talked to the immediate neighbors of this new house and they’ve been welcoming and responsive,” Marquardt said. “They are happy to see the house filled with families again. It has sat empty for a couple of years.”

Bee’s TBS special is designed to raise money for families separated at the U.S.-Mexican border. And Bee dubbed it, cheekily, “Christmas on I.C.E.” It will air commercial free. (You can donate here.)

Valencia said he’s thrilled Bee is publicizing how Trump’s immigration policies are impacting not just those trying to enter from the Mexican border but how they are deporting more undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for years as taxpayers with no criminal record. 

El Refugio is relatively small non profit. The only financial data provided to Guidestar is assets, which were $117,792 in 2017, up from $83,796 in 2016. Marquardt said the group is projected to generate $102,000 in revenue this year though this publicity might give them a boost. You could donate directly here. 

The group hired Valencia, its first part-time paid executive director in 2015. He went full time in 2017. Ghezzi joined as a part-time second employee just last month. 

According a story in the AJC a year ago, Stewart Detention Center has had serious safety problems undermining the “humane treatment” of its detainees, according to a stinging report by the U.S. Homeland Security Department’s Office of Inspector General.

Disclosure: my wife Helen is on the group’s advisory board. I visited myself in 2012.

Here I am with my wife and two early board members of El Refugio Amy and P.J. Edwards in front of the original home. 

TV PREVIEW

“Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” presents “Christmas on I.C.E.” 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, December 19, TBS

About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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